Looking around the room full of their second cousins in Valpergo, Italy, in 2014, sisters Dee Pollinger, Washington, and Jean Woll, Union, could see some family resemblances, striking resemblances in at least two cases.
But they hadn’t needed to see any likenesses. The sisters already knew they had found what they were looking for — family.
They had brought 10 pages or so of research from a genealogy binder Dee had spent six years compiling. Included in the pages were photos she had found of their grandparents, who had immigrated to America in the early 1900s from Valpergo and Cuorgné, Italy.
At least one of those photos was also among the Italian relatives’ belongings.
“So we knew there was a family connection,” said Jean, smiling.
That 2014 trip was Dee’s second to Italy to research their family tree. She first went in 2008, but didn’t have any luck finding relatives, at least until she came home to America.
Tour Guide Made the Connection
Dee began researching her family’s Italian roots in 2008. After having been diagnosed with breast cancer and completing her treatments, she had the urge to discover her family history.
She didn’t have much to start with, just a few photos and a little bit of information, comments really, that her parents, who were both passed away at that point, had made over the years —including the fact that their roots were in northern Italy.
Their family, the Zanchettis, had made their home near Greenville, Ill. Their grandparents on their father’s side were both from Italy, and they came to America with three children and then had two more, including their father, once they were settled.
Using Ancestry.com, Dee found only a little bit of information on her Zanchetti family.
“We found my grandfather’s brothers and sisters, but we can trace nothing beyond that,” she said. “We still can’t.”
They did, however, discover items like their grandparents’ marriage license and their passports.
So in 2013, Dee decided to make a trip to Italy to see if she could find any more information in-country. Taking along her granddaughter, Courtney Pepmueller, who is a seasoned traveler, they worked with an Italian tour guide and spent four days searching.
“We went through telephone books and everthing looking for Zanchetti,” said Dee. “But we could not find a relative.”
A little disappointed, Dee and her granddaughter continued on their trip, visiting France and Spain before coming home to America. But they weren’t home two weeks before Dee heard from the tour guide.
“I had told her to keep looking, if she could, and she said, ‘I found your cousin! She’s my neighbor!’ ” Dee recalled. “Is that a coincidence or what?”
The tour guide, a woman named Laura De Nardo, and her neighbor, Iside Enrietto, were talking about her working with Dee, and in sharing the maternal grandmother’s name, Carrera, the neighbor made the connection.
“It just sends chills through me even now when I tell about it, because it is just so amazing,” said Dee.
“I asked her, ‘When can I hire you next?’ ”
Cuorgné and Valperga
Dee went back to Italy in 2014, this time with her sister. De Nardo had planned the entire trip for them, including meetings with their Carrera relatives.
“Our grandparents came from Cuorgné and Valperga, which aren’t that far apart,” said Dee, who said she recognized the town name Cuorgné as soon as she heard it.
As a young girl, she remembers people calling her grandfather by that name when they would visit an Italian town in Illinois where the family had first settled when they came to America.
Among the places the sisters were able to visit was the church where their grandparents were married, Sacro Monte di Belmonte, which has a restaurant connected with it where they enjoyed a four-hour, multi-course dinner with their Carrera relatives.
The historic church was special for their grandparents, the sisters learned, because when you look out from the balcony, you can see both of their hometowns in the distance.
De Nardo and a friend of hers who also speaks English have served as interpreters for the two sides of the family, and actually many of the younger Italian relatives do speak English, said Dee. They also like to communicate through Facebook because it offers a translation feature.
When she receives actual letters from the Italian relatives, Dee has been sending a copy to De Nardo to have her translate.
“She’s like family to us now,” Dee remarked.
Still, she’s trying to find someone local who speaks Italian and can translate the letters instead.
More Sights in 2016
The sisters left Italy “so elated” in 2014, but wanting more time with their relatives, they went back in 2016.
“We were so happy just to say that we found our family,” said Jean. “And they accepted us so graciously . . . they gave us lots of little mementos.”
“They went out of their way to be extra nice to us,” Dee added.
“I cried almost the whole time we were there because it was just so touching to find my family,” she said.
One of the places the sisters were able to see on their last trip was the Carrera family home where their grandmother lived with her children after their grandfather had left for America to get their new life established.
“Our grandfather came over first and earned the passage for the rest of the family to come over,” said Jean. “While they were waiting, they stayed in the house next to Grandma’s sister. They called it the Carrara house. Any of the family could stay there if they wanted. It was a family house.”
Their Italian relatives, who met the sisters at the airport with roses, also treated them to a trip to their mountain home in the Alps where they served a meal that included homemade polenta, Dee’s favorite Italian dish.
The ladies received many gifts from their Italian relatives, including pottery made in Cuorgné and decorative copper plates — two things the town is known for.
They also bought items, including pottery pieces like spoon rests, to share with their children and grandchildren here.
When Dee was finished compiling all of the information she had collected about their grandparents and the Italian relatives, she had a binder nearly a foot thick.
She made one for her sister, their children and grandchildren — 19 total.
The book includes photos, maps and documents, like their marriage license, naturalization papers and war record (Grandfather Zanchetti fought in World War I for America). Much of the information they have was found using Ancestry.com and census records.
“I found the picture of the boat they came over on and their names on the passenger lists,” said Dee.
When nieces and nephews ask her questions about the family history she tells them, “Look in the book. You’ll find that in the book.”
Dee sent one of the books she made to a first cousin living in Texas. He never had the opportunity to meet their grandparents, so this spring, Dee plans to visit him and go over all of the information she put in the book.
“When I went down there six or seven years ago, he about wouldn’t let me out of his sight, because he wanted to hear everything about his grandparents. So this is the perfect way to show and tell him everything we know about his grandparents. I cannot wait!” Dee remarked.
The book has a section for each relative — grandparents, uncles, aunts . . . and includes lots of photos.
“Each of the kids and their families and anything we could dig up about them,” said Dee.
“I just think it’s so important for people to try to trace their families,” she commented. “So often we think we should do it, and we don’t.”
Dee and Jean are hopeful that some of their Italian relatives will soon make a trip to America so they can return the favor of hosting them.
A few years ago, the sisters were so inspired by their Italian heritage and the relatives they’d met that they decided to throw a special Italian dinner for the family Christmas gathering.
“We made up a menu and translated the words. I set up tables of four for 35 people. My daughter went around and serenaded the tables. A couple of our nieces were servers. We had special shirts made. We really had a good time,” said Dee.
“I think we had more fun preparing it than they did enjoying it. We served all Italian recipes.”
This year, Dee’s Christmas tree was devoted entirely to Italy, with special ornaments showcasing the country’s features.
“It reminds me of our family,” said Dee, with a smile.